The Mediterranean Diet food traditions come from the eastern, western, northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. While the healthy eating pattern is similar, the ingredients, spices and dishes vary from country to country, and region to region. We celebrate each and every country’s cuisine and are committed to helping everyone learn about all the culinary traditions from all countries and all regions.
Culinary traditions also vary region-by-region within countries. Regional cuisines deﬁne the land, the agriculture and traditions of the places they represent. This tradition is constant all around the Mediterranean basin (and the world, too!). To illustrate this, take our Italian culinary tour of—and be inspired by —the classic pasta dishes that deﬁne Italian regional cooking.
There are more than 400 unique pasta shapes. In Italy, pasta is as much about the sauce as it is about the pasta. The pasta should “marry” the sauce; that is, particular pasta shapes pair better with particular sauces. Generally, larger shapes work better with thick, robust sauces, whereas skinny shapes, like strands of delicate capellini and spaghetti, suit lighter sauces. Mixed with olive oil, tomato sauce, vegetables, beans, seafood or meat, the combinations of pasta and sauce are endless. There’s deﬁnitely a plate of pasta to please everyone—vegans, vegetarians, omnivores, pescatarians, and carnivores alike.
Liguria: Trenette or Troﬁe al Pesto
In his very comprehensive and interesting book on Ligurian cooking, Recipes from Paradise, and also writing for The Splendid Table, Fred Plotkin explains that while pesto (the fabulous basil sauce from Genova, the capital city of the northwestern Italian region of Liguria) was traditionally made by using a mortar and pestle, today it is acceptable to use a blender. Fred’s recipe includes 1 large bunch of fresh basil leaves, 4 cloves of garlic (peeled), 1 teaspoon of pine nuts, 5-6 tablespoons of Ligurian extra virgin olive oil and ¾ cup of freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Other cooks might also add Parmigiano Reggiano.
The Ligurian pasta shapes that traditionally accompany Pesto alla Genovese are either trenette, a long, narrow, ﬂat dried pasta or troﬁe, a short and twisted pasta.
Fred also notes that “In Genova it is traditional to boil a peeled potato along with the pasta. This potato is then chopped into chunks and tossed with the pesto and pasta. The genovesi often add a few slivers of cooked string beans as well. Some cooks add a bit of hot water from the pasta pot to dilute the pesto just before it is tossed with the noodles.”
Piedmonte: Tajarin al tartufo bianco
The northwest Italian region of Piedmonte is famous for wines (Barolo, Barbaresco and others), coﬀee (Lavazza), cars (Fiat) and white truﬄes (from Alba), among other things. Therefore, to choose a classic pasta dish requires a pasta with truﬄes.
Tajarin al tartufo bianco is this classic dish. Food52 explains that Tajarin (Piedmontese dialect for Tagliolini or Tagliarini) is the Piemontese version of tagliatelle, a long thin pasta shape. The pasta is egg-yolk rich, which makes it a more golden colored and delicate.
To complete the dish, tajarin is joined by the famous white truﬄes from the area around the city of Alba, butter and perhaps a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Veneto: Risi e Bisi Bigoli is a traditional pasta of the Veneto and Venice. It is a long pasta that can be fresh or dry, whole grain or white. The classic is a whole wheat bigoli with a sauce of anchovies or sardines.
However, we would be remiss in not mentioning Risi e Bisi, also known as rice and peas, in considering classic Venetian dishes. In their wonderful, seasonally-oriented cookbook, Canal House Cooking, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton say they “like to welcome in spring and the arrival of fresh peas as the Venetians do, with this soupy rice and pea dish.” In preparing for our May 2019 culinary tour in the Veneto, we learned from Valeria Necchio’s book that risi e bisi is traditionally “linked to the festivity of Saint Mark’s Day, patron saint of Venice, on the twenty-ﬁfth of April. Venetians would crowd around the stalls of the Rialto Market to secure their share of fresh peas the ﬁrst of the season arriving from the vegetable gardens of the island of Sant’Erasmo then rush home to join in the culinary celebrations. The tradition slowly spread from the ﬂoating city to the inland and eventually reached every corner of the region, elevating risi e bisi to the status of iconic dish.”
Emilia Romagna: Tortellini in Brodo
According to the Taste Atlas, the ﬁrst written record of tortellini goes back to the 17th century, although it is probable that they were created earlier than that. It is believed that they originate from the Emilia-Romagna area, speciﬁcally cities Modena and Bologna. Unlike other pasta varieties, tortellini were considered a luxurious food, usually served during important holidays or festivities.
In her wonderful book on the foods and cooking of Emilia Romagna, The Splendid Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper has a recipe, Tortellini in brodo Villa Gaidello (Tortellini in Broth from Villa Gaidello). Oldways was fortunate enough to visit Villa Gaidello with Lynne during our Symposium in 2020, and we can agree, it could easily become a favorite at your family’s holiday table too.
The recipe from Villa Gaidello includes broth from beef, however, the dish could be made with a chicken stock instead. The dish also features two of Emilia Romagna’s iconic foods: Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Because there are not a lot of ingredients, it’s important to use high quality ingredients.
Tuscany: Pappardelle al cinghiale
Pappardelle, a wide, ﬂat pasta is one of Tuscany’s favored pasta shapes. While you probably won’t be pairing it with cinghiale (wild boar) as they do in Tuscany, there are other ways to enjoy pappardelle. Making a ragu (or sugo as they would say in Tuscany) is a good companion for pappardelle. The ragu can be meat-based or vegetable-based (mushroom, for example). In describing her recipe for Tuscan ragu/sugo, American born Florentine food writer and teacher Judy Witts (aka Divina Cucina) says, “there is nothing like sugo to say “ Ti amo”, I love you.”
Umbria: Umbricelli or Spaghetti with black truﬄes
Umbria is known as the green heart of Italy. The region is dotted with hill towns (Perugia, Deruta, Todi, Orvieto, Spello, and many others) and the region both mountainous and green. Agriculture is all around—on the plains and in the valleys between mountains and hills.
Like Piedmont, Umbria is known for truﬄes (black). Michele Scicolone writes in A Fresh Taste of Italy, that Black truﬄes are a feature of the local cuisine, usually grated on pasta and egg dishes.
Umbricelli is a local ﬂour and water pasta—thick, spaghetti-shaped pasta—that is easily paired with the local truﬄes. If you can’t ﬁnd or make umbricelli, try spaghetti. Mary Ann Esposito, in her excellent book, Ciao Italia in Umbria, has a wonderful recipe for Spaghetti with black truﬄes.
Better yet, join Oldways and Chef Kevin O’Donnell of Giusto restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island for a week-long Oldways Culinaria in Umbria. We’ll be based in Perugia, and will fan out to all the mountains and valleys, and all the spectacular hill towns during the week of October 2-9, 2022.
Lazio: Bucatini all’Amatriciana
Rome is in the region of Lazio, but it is not Rome where this classic dish comes from. Bucatini all’Amatriciana is named after the town of Amatratrice, in the central Apennines, about 70 miles northeast of Rome. British food writer Anna Del Conte writes in Italian Kitchen that the sauce is traditionally “made with pork jowl and ﬂavored with a lot of dried chili and grated pecorino to counterbalance the fattiness of the meat.” In her book, The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, Nancy Harmon Jenkins explains that “you don’t have to make this with bucatini – other suitable pasta shapes include rigatoni, penne, and ziti.
When Amatratrice was decimated by an earthquake in 2016, several independent eﬀorts were made to use the town’s signature dish— spaghetti all’ amatriciana— to help relief eﬀorts, as reported by many, including National Public Radio. A graphic artist and blogger, as well as an Italian food-focused website, organized campaigns for restaurants to donate 1 euro for each plate of spaghetti all’Amatriciana sold. Within 2 days, 700 restaurants had signed on!
Campania: Spaghetti or Linguine alle Vongole
Spaghetti or Linguine alle Vongole is Italian for “spaghetti with clams” and is a dish that is exceedingly popular throughout Italy, especially in Campania, the region in southwest Italy that is home to Naples. The dish is Neopolitan (of Naples) and is very easy to prepare, with two main ingredients—pasta and clams—and of course, olive oil. Any number of additional ingredients can be added, depending upon the cook. The addition of tomatoes is the most debated, as well as whether to use spaghetti or linguine. Whether you choose Spaghetti con le Vongole in Bianco (no tomatoes) or Spaghetti alle Vongole con Pomodorini (with tomatoes), pasta with clams is a pleasure. Try Molly O’Neill’s recipe in the New York Times. She uses no tomatoes, and adds chili pepper ﬂakes, white wine, lemon juice and parsley.
To experience Naples and Spaghetti alle Vongole (with or without tomatoes) in person, consider joining Oldways and Chef Michael Lombardi of Boston’s SRV Restaurant for the Naples-Amalﬁ Culinaria from October 16-23, 2022. We promise, it will be special.
Puglia: Orecchiette con cime di rapa (orecchiette with broccoli rabe)
The region of Puglia— the heel of the boot—is the region Oldways has visited most often. We love the region, the food, and the olive oil, and we’ve organized six international symposia and Culinarias since 1995. Undoubtedly, the classic pasta dish is Orecchiette con cime di rapa (orecchiette with broccoli rabe). Orecchiette is a fun shape of pasta— it’s called the little ear as it is shaped like an ear. In Bari, the regional capital of Puglia, it’s possible to watch orecchiette being made in the narrow streets of the old part of the city.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who wrote the book, The Flavors of Puglia, explains that the orecchiette is combined with a sauce made of broccoli rabe or rapini, “a type of strongly ﬂavored broccoli that is increasingly available in supermarket produce departments. She suggests that if you can’t ﬁnd broccoli rabe, substitute with regular broccoli, but the ﬂavor will not be as sharp and interesting.” Nancy’s recipe also ﬂavors the dish with anchovies and hot red pepper ﬂakes or a dried red chili.
Sicily: Pasta alla Norma
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just oﬀ the ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot. Sicily is also an island with a unique, eclectic, and rich history. Sicily was ﬁrst ruled by the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, followed by the Romans. After the Romans came the Muslims, followed by the Normans, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, and, ﬁnally, Italians. Each occupier made an imprint on Sicilian culture and food.
The Arabs made the most remarkable contributions, largely through advanced agricultural techniques, such as irrigation, as well as by introducing a plethora of crops such as apricots, citrus, eggplant, couscous, raisins, nuts (e.g., almonds and pistachios), rice, sugarcane, and spices (e.g., cinnamon, saﬀron and nutmeg).
It is the eggplant, amongst the most used vegetable in Sicily, that is at the heart of Pasta alla Norma.
Culinary historian and cookbook writer Mary Taylor Simeti writes about the dish in her book about cooking with her grandchildren, Sicilian Summer. Mary says that ‘despite its simplicity, Pasta all Norma achieves brilliance when made with ﬁrst-rate ingredients. This inspired combination of pasta, tomato sauce, fried eggplants, grated ricotta salata cheese (a salted, aged ricotta) and fresh basil is the iconic Sicilian summer ﬁrst course.’
The Healthy Pasta Meal
Not only are these classic dishes high in taste, they also can be very healthy and sometimes can even provide a complete meal on a plate or bowl. There are many great reasons to enjoy pasta, beginning with its structure. Because of the way it is made, pasta has a low Glycemic Index, meaning that it raises our blood sugar more slowly than other carbohydrate sources. This is because pasta’s complex carbohydrates are more slowly digested and can help keep us satiated. Even better, this low impact on blood sugar occurs not only at that meal, but also at the following meal, in a phenomenon dubbed the ‘second meal concept.’
Also, not only is pasta a healthy staple food in its own right, it is also an ideal vessel to help get other nutritious foods on our plate, such as seasonal vegetables, ﬁsh, tomatoes, or beans.
As Dr. David Katz, founder of the True Health Initiative, says: “Pasta ﬁgures famously in some variants of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which in turn ﬁgure among the diets practiced by the longest-lived, most vital populations known.”
Further, pasta does not make you fat. Around the globe, carbohydrate confusion has taken hold, with many people inadvertently turning away from the foods that have nourished humanity for centuries. Nutrition experts agree that pasta is not to blame for weight gain. In fact, pasta can actually be your friend when it comes to keeping the weight oﬀ.
Finally, pasta tastes great and is versatile in any cuisine. Pasta is a blank canvas that beautifully showcases the spices, herbs and regional specialties of cuisines around the world.
As we say at Oldways, Viva la Pasta! Buon appetito!
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